PHO705 Week 11: Back to Basics

I am attending some workshops from a series online curated by the Royal Photographic Society. They are called Creativity Live and are hosted by Jon Cunningham, a professional photographer and teacher (Cunningham 2021).

I thought it would be useful to get back to the basics of photography skills. Looking generally at the leading photography websites such as BJP online, LensCulture, Aperture and so forth has begun to make me uneasy. The reason is that it is too easy to ‘go conceptual’ and talk about the meaning of a photograph without considering whether, as a photograph, it is actually any good. So the temptation here – and I am certainly as prone to this as anyone – is to think that mediocre work can be magically raised a notch by intellectual discourse. It is important for me to get back to the basics: what makes a good photograph and how do I take one?

The first workshop was on ‘What Makes a Good Photograph’. It was pointed out that in 2019 1.4 trillion images were taken, 75 per cent more than a decade ago.  However, the average ‘dwell time’ online for an image – the time a viewer spends looking at it – is now only 1.7 seconds, down from twice that five years ago. This means that it is more important than ever to take care that one’s work stands out from the crowd, and that one is informed enough to be able to sift through the images of others and feel confident that one has identified the images that matter.

Jon pointed to three main things here. First, I need to check that my attention is fully engaged when looking at an image. Second, I need to assess its competence against standard technical criteria such as exposure, framing, colour, focus and so on. Third, and very importantly, I need to look for an X factor by asking myself whether the image educates me or shows me a new perspective on something, whether it creates an arresting atmosphere that draws me in, and whether it stirs an emotion, a connection. This ‘Creative Review’ is the essence of what makes a good photograph,

An image can be technically excellent – most digital images these days are – but if it fails a Creative Review then it is a snap, not a photograph.

The second workshop was on ‘How to Spot a Signature Style’. It sounds easy. Cartier-Bresson had a distinctive style, as did Avedon or Penn. Contemporary photographers with well-known styles include Martin Parr and Steve McCurry. To them I would add Nadav Kander for his landscapes (see Figs 1 and 2). Jon suggested that one needs to assess a photographer’s work in terms of whether 1) it is visually distinctive, 2) whether it is unusual or distinctive in content, 3) whether it combines both of these elements, or 4) whether it has neither of them. Most images have either the first or the second. A few have both. Images that have neither have no style.

Fig. 1: Nadav Kander 2014.
Fig. 1: Nadav Kander 2014. Untitled. Kander’s images of ruined Soviet nuclear sites are distinctive for their bleakness, their consistent tonality and colour palette, and their careful treatment of human scale in the landscape.
Fig. 2: Nadav Kander 2006
Fig. 2: Nadav Kander 2006. ‘Chongqing VII (washing bike), Chongqing Municipality, 2006’. As in his other landscape works. Kander’s images of China retain a distinct personality in their mood, tonality and colour palette, and in their careful treatment of human scale in the landscape.

But for a photographer, acquiring a style is very hard and usually requires years of work until the photographer is experienced enough to be making the images that only he or she could make. And, in any case, how useful is a style? It tends to be important only in certain genres and a fixed style can be counter-productive if it blocks personal change. Many of the photographers interviewed in Photowork (Wolf 2019) repudiated having a fixed style at all, for example.

There are other issues here, too. The financial impact of the internet has sometimes made it more difficult for photographers to evolve a style because cut-backs mean that agencies and publications are keener than they were to stick to in-house styles and rules, and they are far less prepared to take risks and license experiments. So having a distinctive style is likely to mean breaking the rules, but the paradox is that unless you are prepared to break the rules you have little chance of being noticed anyway.

Jon cited the brilliant young photographer Jack Davison as an example of how to get this right. Davison’s style is one of constant energy and experimentation (see Fig. 1) that emerged from a long American road-trip in which he was able to work without boundaries. In other words, the key ingredients here are play, experimentation and a willingness to make mistakes. In Davison’s case this has taken him to  Vogue and the New York Times.

Fig. 3: Jack Davison 2021
Fig. 3: Jack Davison 2021. ‘Work: 6/34’. Davison’s work is notable for its boldness, energy and experimentation. There are no rules here.

I enjoyed this workshop. It was all about encouraging one to produce work that stands out and suggesting ways to start on that journey. In a world that produces 1.4 trillion images annually, there is no hope of getting on and getting noticed unless one is doing one’s best to produce work that really does stand out.

References

CUNNINGHAM, Jon. 2021. ‘Creativity Live Series’. Royal Photographic Society [online]. Available at: https://rps.org/news/bristol/2021/february/creativity-live-series-jon-cunningham/ [accessed 27 March 2021].

DAVISON, Jack. 2021. ‘Jack Davison: Photographer’. Jack Davison [online]. Available at: https://www.jackdavison.co.uk/ [accessed 10 Apr 2021].

WOLF, Sasha (ed.). 2019. Photowork: Forty Photographers on Process and Practice. First edit. New York, NY: Aperture.

Figures

Figure 1. KANDER, Nadav. 2014. Untitled. From: Nadav Kander and Will Self. 2014. Nadav Kander: Dust. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz.

Figure 2. KANDER, Nadav. 2010. ‘Chongqing VII (washing bike), Chongqing Municipality, 2006’. From: Nadav Kander. 2010. Yangtze, The Long River. Berlin: Hatje Cantz.

Figure 3. DAVISON, Jack. 2021. ‘Work: 6/34’. From: Jack Davison. 2021. ‘Jack Davison: Photographer’. Jack Davison [online]. Available at: https://www.jackdavison.co.uk/ [accessed 10 Apr 2021].

PHO705 Week 11: Peer Reviews

Some of us in the German Bight cohort recently arranged to hold one-to-one peer reviews of each other’s work. I teamed up with Victoria Smith. We each spent a few days reading the other’s CRJ and reviewing work in progress, then we shared our impressions in a Zoom call.

I found the process immensely helpful. I think it was Martin Parr who said that when it comes to reviewing one’s images, the easiest person to fool is oneself. For a photographer, it is too easy to become caught up in the experience of making the image and to forget that a viewer will come to the image in a much more objective way. This is why culling one’s darlings during curation can be so difficult.

Victoria suggested that I might find it helpful to involve myself more with my peers and the cohort. She is quite right: I have a tendency to be a loner and can often forget to connect with others. She also suggested that I might find it helpful to look more at the work of other photographers in a similar field to that of my Final Major Project. This is another spot-on suggestion. In fact I have looked at several photographers by now, such as Keith Arnatt, John Gossage, Fay Goodwin, Lucas Foglia, Chloe Dewe Mathews and Willie Doherty, but I have not yet written them up in my CRJ. In addition, not all of them are current practitioners, engaged in the kind of project I might see covered in the British Journal of Photography or in Aperture, or shown in an online talk. While it is very important to be aware of the major past photographers in one’s field, it is one’s now-active peers that contextualize the work one produces and against which one is likely to be measured. This feeds into commercial considerations when it comes to pitching for work or entering competitions, for example.

Further suggestions included considering my audience more fully, looking at including historical artefacts in my work such as old maps, paintings, woodcuts, implements and so on, and looking at more fluid and flexible layouts. Finally, Victoria suggested that I look at the work of the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman in, for example, Liquid Modernity (Bauman 2000) – a new field for me and so very helpful.

So overall, a great meeting. I only hope that my suggestions to Victoria with her own practice were as useful. Her own Final Major Project, Uncanny Bodies, is completely different from mine (Smith 2021). But this just made the process more interesting and more challenging. It is always good to be stretched by considering new things outside one’s comfort zone and, besides, her work has led me appreciate some wonderful photographers such as Viviane Sassen and Annie Collinge.

References

BAUMAN, Zygmunt. 2000. Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.

SMITH, Victoria. 2021. ‘Critical Research Journal, Photography MA’. Victoria Smith [online]. Available at: https://photographycriticalresearchjournal.wordpress.com/ [accessed 6 April 2021].

PHO705 Week 10: the Oxfordshire Rising II

Although the Oxfordshire Rising of 1596 may remain an obscure incident for most people, it nevertheless continues to act as a source of inspiration. Here are three examples:

The first is ‘Black Showers’, a short story based on the Oxfordshire Rising by S. J. Bradley (Bradley 2019) in Resist, a collection of fictionalised accounts of popular uprisings throughout British history (Page 2019). The story concentrates perhaps too much on the grisly aspects of arrest, torture and execution but is completely correct, I think, in showing how those arrested were starving country folk in thrall to a violent and one-sided system of government. The story is followed by a valuable afterword by John Walter (Walter 2019) which brings his original historical research up to date (Walter 1985). As Walter says,

Where the historical record fails to record the emotional timbre of the story (though their anger comes through clearly in the examination of the would-be rebels), the fiction writer’s imagination can remind us of their fear – and of their bravery (Walter 2019).

The second example is Robinson in Ruins, a documentary arts film narrated by Vanessa Redgrave and made by the artist Patrick Keiller (Keiller 2010). This a film about the meaning of landscape; much of it is set within a few miles of my home. There is extensive coverage of the Oxfordshire Rising of 1596 and of Hampton Gay and Enslow Hill.

Fig. 1: Patrick Keiller 2010. Film poster for Robinson in Ruins.

Keiller’s interests are not entirely mine but there is considerable overlap. He shot the film in 2010 and is much concerned with the impact of global warming on the Oxfordshire countryside and with the aftermath of the Cold War on the land. He therefore investigates Greenham Common in nearby Berkshire, Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire (both once nuclear-armed airfields) and the cluster of sinister weapons and research facilities on the Oxfordshire–Berkshire borders.

However, Keiller very clearly sees the physical landscape of the film as a metaphor for an economic landscape. Keiller’s landscape is dominated by the Ministry of Defence and American corporations whereas mine is more about unequal social relations and the power of new money flowing from the City of London. Both of us are looking at pollution and at agribusiness. A powerful sequence in the film shot near the village of Beckley (Robert Burton from Beckley was executed for his part in the Oxfordshire Rising) shows combine harvesters at work in a field of wheat while the narrator reminds us than less than half of England’s cereal crop is actually destined for human consumption. Much of the rest goes to feed livestock which one guesses actually means ‘hamburgers and milkshakes from US-owned franchises’.

I am glad I have found Robinson in Ruins. It offers me something I can take care to avoid copying but the film confirms my instinct that the way forward with the Oxfordshire Rising is through metaphor. It is the underlying economic and cultural conditions that matter and from time to time they burst out in public protest whether at Greenham Common or in 1596 at Enslow Hill.

Fig. 2: Patrick Keillor 2012. Cover of The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet, published to accompany the 2012 Tate Britain exhibition The Robinson Institute.

A third example is The Robinson Institute, Keiller’s exhibition at the Tate in 2012 based on at least some of the same body of work. I did not see this, but a book of the exhibition is still available and I plan to obtain a copy (Keiller 2012).

References 

BRADLEY, S. J. 2019. ‘Black Showers’. In Ra PAGE (ed.). Resist: Stories of Uprising. Manchester: Comma Press, 35-47.

KEILLER, Patrick. 2010. Robinson in Ruins. [Film]. Available at: https://player.bfi.org.uk/rentals/film/watch-robinson-in-ruins-2010-online [accessed 8 April 2021

KEILLER, Patrick. 2012. The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet. London: Tate Publishing.

PAGE, Ra (ed.). 2019. Resist: Stories of Uprising. Manchester: Comma Press.

WALTER, John. 1985. ‘A “Rising of the People”? The Oxfordshire Rising of 1596’. Past & Present 107(1), [online], 90–143. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1093/past/107.1.90 [accessed 29 March 2021].

Figures

Figure 1. Patrick KEILLER. 2010. Film poster for Robinson in Ruins. Available at: https://patrickkeiller.org/robinson-in-ruins-2/ [accessed 9 April 2021].

Figure 2. Patrick KEILLER. 2012. Cover of The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet, published to accompany the 2012 Tate Britain exhibition The Robinson Institute. Available at: https://patrickkeiller.org/the-possibility-of-lifes-survival-on-the-planet/ [accessed 9 April 2021].

PHO705 Week 10: the Oxfordshire Rising

The following is a summary of a meticulous scholarly investigation by the historian John Walter (Walter 1985). It is important to record it here because now that I have found and researched it the story of the Oxfordshire Rising is going to form the backbone of my Final Major Project.

The Oxfordshire Rising of 1596 was one of a large number of rural protests that took place all over England in about 1595–7. By 1596 there had been three poor harvests in a row. The price of grain had risen threefold and many rural poor now faced starvation. The government of the time was well aware that a coordinated uprising – another Peasants’ Revolt – would be very difficult to contain. Coming on top of political insecurities such as constant warring with Spain this threat to the nation’s food supply made a fraught situation even worse.

In northern Oxfordshire, another factor was at play: aggressive land enclosures by wealthy landlords, forcing villagers off the land in favour of sheep pasture and thus increasing the pool of landless poor unable to sustain themselves. The enclosers were often aristocrats but were often also ‘new money’, self-made men with little time for the traditional social bonds between landlord and tenant. ‘There is no such thing as society’ is a phrase they would likely have understood very well.

A nexus of contentious and resented enclosures was in a small parcel of land around the villages of Bletchingdon, Hampton Gay, Kidlington, Water Eaton and Yarnton just to the north of Oxford city. Three enclosers, in particular, were at work there: Francis Power in Bletchingdon, Vincent Barry in Hampton Gay and William Frere in Water Eaton. This is almost exactly the area I am already studying for my Final Major Project.

Enter a 28-year-old carpenter called Bartholomew Steer from Hampton Gay. In the autumn of 1596 Steer and a few other young men decided that enough was enough, and they began to solicit support for a general rising in the area against the landlords and to secure desperately needed food supplies. Steer, however, went a step further than similar rebels of the time. Whereas the call in rural areas was usually confined to violence against property – by throwing down the hedges of the enclosers and taking back farmland – Steer advocated a more drastic solution. He called for local landlords to be assassinated and their weapons seized house by house in a progress towards London – at which point, he hoped, the London prentices would join them in a general uprising. Among the top of his list to be ‘spoil’d’ – Steer’s term for executed – were Francis Power and Vincent Barry.

In the event, Steer’s plans were a dismal failure. Records show that he was a thoughtful tactician and eloquent speaker, but the essential problem was that he and a handful of other ‘poor boys’ – angry young village men with no prospects – would never have the authority to persuade large numbers of people to risk everything for political change. Besides, many of Steer’s recorded comments are somewhat fantastical and it remains unclear how serious about ‘spoiling’ he actually was. ‘Work?’, he said to a starving villager, ‘Care not for worke, for we shall have a meryer world shortly; there be lusty fellowes abroade, and I will gett more, and I will work one daie and plaie an other, ffor I know ere yt be long wee shall have a meryer world’ (Walter 1985: 100). This was hardly practical talk in a famine.

Steer aimed to ignite the uprising with a gathering on Enslow Hill (a mile from Hampton Gay) on 17 November 1596, but on that Sunday evening the only people who ever turned up were Steer himself and three companions. Worse was to follow, much worse. Elizabethan society was rife with informers and Vincent Barry at Hampton Gay, Steer’s own Lord of the Manor, had already been alerted. Barry raised a general alarm and within days Steer and others had been arrested and sent to London tied to the backs of horses.

Waiting for them in London was Sir Edward Coke, the attorney general. Coke was convinced that he had uncovered a grave plot and authorized torture ‘for the better bowltinge forth of the truthe’. From now on, matters assumed a terrible inevitability. Statements extracted from the men confirmed to Coke that stern measures were required, if only pour encourager les autres. Four men were subsequently arraigned on charges of high treason, even though some of Coke’s fellow lawyers were uneasy at what may have seemed a disproportionate response to rural braggadocio with no actual action ever arising.

Of the four men charged, only two ever went to full trial. Steer and one companion had already died in prison, either from the torture or from the conditions of incarceration. Judicial proceedings were little more than a kangaroo court. At an assize hearing two of the jurors were landlords from Bletchingdon. A judge at the treason trial was compromised by a familial relationship with Vincent Barry of Hampton Gay: his heir was about to become Barry’s son-in-law.

In the summer of 1597 the Oxfordshire Rising came to a miserable end back on Enslow Hill where it had started. In a final act of barbarity Richard Bradshaw of Hampton Gay and Robert Burton of Beckley were hung, drawn and quartered with proceedings overseen by none other than landlord and encloser William Frere of Water Eaton acting as sheriff.

This is a tremendous if very sad story that John Walter’s meticulous research into contemporary records and court proceedings has now rescued from historical obscurity. The story also has a very surprising outcome. Within a decade, the Elizabethan authorities had reversed their policy on land enclosure and were coming down hard on aggressive landlords. Among the first to be arraigned before the Star Chamber in London for precisely that were Francis Power of Bletchingdon and William Frere of Water Eaton.

Ironically, one of the leading voices in favour of enclosure reform was Sir Edward Coke. Perhaps Coke had a residue of guilt over his harsh treatment of Steer. More probably, he like others in government had realized that a new class of acquisitive and aggressive property-owners could not be allowed to prosper unchecked if the result was social breakdown and possibly catastrophic public disorder. The poor always had to be kept on side. The ghost of Bartholomew Steer would haunt lawmakers for years to come. Arguably it still does. The Cameron government’s austerity programme of 2010-16 fell disproportionately on the poor. The uprising that resulted – this time at the ballot box – was Brexit.

My challenge is how to represent this photographically. I think the only way is to treat the Oxfordshire Rising as a rich layer of metaphor within my own story. To an extent I can take a literal approach, for example by photographing some of the places where these events occurred. However, the real meaning here likes in the metaphor. In photographing a physical landscape I am actually showing an economic landscape. The physical landscape has changed; it is the economic landscape and its social relations that has endured through time.

My research has already indicated that remarkably little has changed since Steer’s day. Many big estates are still there, social inequality has increased noticeably in recent years, and there is an uneasy and sometimes unpleasant relationship between those who own the land and others who happen to live there. Meanwhile government sees the general population as potentially hostile and concentrates mainly on fixing things for its own class of interests. We may no longer have land enclosures of the Tudor kind, but I would argue that the current fashion for offshore financial vehicles, property development and agribusiness is our contemporary version of the same thing. It is essentially a cash grab upon society’s common resources by that same class of aggressive self-interested new money – today, the City of London – that caused all the trouble in the first place. Plus ça change.

References

WALTER, John. 1985. ‘A “Rising of the People”? The Oxfordshire Rising of 1596’. Past & Present 107(1), [online], 90–143. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1093/past/107.1.90 [accessed 29 March 2021].

PHO705 Week 9: Online Lectures

Contemporary Photography and the Environment is a talk by the curator Kim Knoppers in Self Publish, Be Happy’s Contemporary Photography series on Vimeo (Knoppers 2021). I found the talk useful because it is something of a survey of contemporary practice in this subject – and it offered several useful ideas.

The first point is that it is important for the photographer to overcome public image fatigue. This affects almost all subjects today but especially those covering global warming and the environment. The days when an image of a polar bear on a melting ice floe could capture attention are long gone.

A second point is that we need to think carefully about what we mean by ‘nature’. This is largely a culturally determined and, today, a contested term. In some ways we live in a nostalgic version of what nature is, evidenced by 1001 wildlife documentaries that show the spectacle but often not the reality. We tend to see nature and culture as opposites, but this is a false binary, and we tend to under-appreciate the relationships involved. These are not only the sometimes very complex relationships between things in the natural world itself but the relationships involved in depicting it and changing our perceptions of it. So the photographer today needs to consider the role of activism and environmental law, for example, and the role of video and sound in producing a work of art.

This is a really helpful message to encourage the photographer to move beyond the static single image. It suggests that compelling works today are likely to be stories based on collaboration between many different interests and artistic techniques.

Knoppers cited several photographers whose work it might pay to study, not least since some of them used mixed media. These include Robert Adams and Joel Sternfeld, with whom I am already familiar, but also Melanie Bonajo, Mark Dorf, Douglas Mandry, Almudena Romero, Lucas Foglia and Fabio Barile. I have already looked at the work of Foglia and Barile and it resonates very strongly with me, particularly Foglia whose career began as a student of Gregory Crewdson.

The overall message of this talk is that essentially we and the planet are all one organism. This is the Gaia hypothesis (Lovelock 1979) and the emphasis is therefore on wholeness. In a world awash with competing theories and a surfeit of images, the challenge for the photographer is that ‘imagination and the camera give us the opportunity to re-enchant a disenchanted world’ (Knoppers 2021).

Many of these ideas bear directly on my current project, particularly the emphasis on moving beyond the static image and into the realm of story-telling and collaboration. The emphasis on examining the culturally determined aspects of what we call ‘nature’ is important too. However, throughout her talk Knoppers emphasized the importance of intimacy. Intimacy builds relationships. Something that is overly conceptual can seem cold and aloof. What the artist needs to aim for is, in her words, ‘clear, detailed and visually seductive’ (Knoppers 2021).

References

KNOPPERS, Kim. 2021. ‘Contemporary Photography and the Environment’. Self Publish, Be Happy [online]. Available at: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/photographyenvironment?autoplay=1 [accessed 20 Mar 2021].

LOVELOCK, James. 1979. Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. Oxford : Oxford University Press.

PHO705 Week 8: Jem Southam

John Duncan, who reviewed my portfolio in Week 6, suggested that I look at the practice of Jem Southam, particularly The Red River which Southam published in 1989 (Southam et al 1989, Southam 2019). In it, he followed the Red River in Cornwall from source to sea, although in reality the ‘river’ is more of a tin-mining stream coursing through a valley. This is one of Southam’s earlier bodies of work. It has a highly atmospheric, spontaneous, slightly off-kilter feel to it, likely because Southam was using a hand-held camera in contrast to the large tripod-mounted plate cameras that he used for much of his subsequent work.

Southam has spoken interestingly of how he came to approach this subject, in the form of a long talk available online (Southam 2020). He started out wanting a portrait of local distinctiveness, a record or topography of a particular landscape. However, he found that this approach was not really touching the lives of the people who lived in the valley. His project felt ‘flat’ and something was missing.

Fig. 1: Jem Southam 1989
Fig. 1: Jem Southam 1989. From his book The Red River and in this image showing the modern realities of the meeting of pastoral and the industrial sublime.

The key came when Southam was looking at a painting of Manchester in the 1850s by William Wyld (‘Kersal Moor, 1852’), which is all golden light and smoking chimneys, and he realized that what had really been motivating him was the story of pastoral set against the industrial sublime, in fact the painting’s subject. Much of the Red River, too, was a smoky and polluted landscape. At the same time, Southam realized that other stories – he calls them ‘myths’ – had been motivating him unconsciously, in particular Biblical stories and the stories in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress which he was re-reading.

This realization enabled Southam to concentrate on specific things in the landscape, or on specific images to frame, because he now understood why he was doing it. He was showing the effects of industrialization on a traditional pastoral landscape and its people far more than he was simply making a portrait of a valley. This was no pastoral childhood wonderland but a mucky and sometimes disturbing reality.

Fig. 2: Jem Southam 1989
Fig. 2: Jem Southam 1989. From his book The Red River. The mucky reality of ‘pastoral’.
Fig. 3: Jem Southam 1989
Fig. 3: Jem Southam 1989. From his book The Red River. More disturbing than ‘beautiful’.

Southam’s realization provided the close, evocative contact his project had lacked until then. Southam believes that these stories exist in all of us. We imbibe them growing up from children’s books or in school or as part of our culture. Some are indeed myths and collectively we have been carrying them for thousands of years. And while we may often carry them unconsciously, they are deeply influential and can affect our attitude to everything we see.

Southam’s talk in this video is a fascinating example of the creative process at work and a reminder that we have to bring the whole of ourselves to a project. Unless we do, the chances are we won’t understand our motivations and so our project, too, may end up lacking because we are not connecting with what our subconscious is telling us.

In another talk online, with time with Martin Parr, Southam points out that ‘the process of developing a piece of work is actually led by the place itself’ (Parr 2019). It is a kind of reverse process that begins by accident, in Southam’s experience. Something draws us to a particular locale, but we do not yet know what. As the images pile up we are confronted by the need to establish why we are drawn to this place, what our work is really about, and how we are going to tell the story.

These are really helpful points to hear and completely relevant to my own project, particularly the clash of pastoral and industrial which is ever-present in the English countryside. I am faced with exactly the questions Southam poses and I need to go through the same process. When I find out why I am doing what I do, then I will begin to know something.

References

PARR, Martin. 2019. ‘Sofa Sessions: Conversations with Martin Parr – Jem Southam’. Martin Parr Foundation [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jKKOFCBmaLk [accessed 18 March 2021].

SOUTHAM, Jem, D. M. THOMAS, F. A. TURK and Jan RUHRMUND. 1989. The Red River. Manchester: Cornerhouse.

SOUTHAM, Jem. 2019. ‘Red River’. Thomas Tallis School [online]. Available at: https://vimeo.com/325618049 [accessed 18 March 2021].

SOUTHAM, Jem. 2020. ‘Jem Southam – From Red River to the River Winter’. On Landscape [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vv9vezFysuI [accessed 19 March 2021].

Figures

Figure 1. SOUTHAM, Jem. 1989. Untitled. From: Jem Southam, D. M. Thomas, F. A. Turk and Jan Ruhrmund. 1989. The Red River. Manchester: Cornerhouse.

Figure 2. SOUTHAM, Jem. 1989. Untitled. From: Jem Southam, D. M. Thomas, F. A. Turk and Jan Ruhrmund. 1989. The Red River. Manchester: Cornerhouse.

Figure 3. SOUTHAM, Jem. 1989. Untitled. From: Jem Southam, D. M. Thomas, F. A. Turk and Jan Ruhrmund. 1989. The Red River. Manchester: Cornerhouse.

PHO705 Week 8: Online Lectures

I have attended several online lectures in the past few weeks. The idea is to sample different organizations, to participate in some ‘Lens Culture’ and to get a feel for where contemporary practice is going in different fields. The following are the first two on my list:

Curating Photography with Susan Bright

This was an online talk at the Royal Photographic Society (Bright 2021) and majored on Susan Bright’s experience as curator of Feast for the Eyes: The Story of Food in Photography (The Photographers’ Gallery 2019) which I visited twice in 2019. Bright emphasized how important it is to study the space for any exhibition, to make maquettes of the layout and to consider how a visitor will move through the rooms and encounter the art. She said that, like good design, the secret of good curation is that it should be invisible, but that it must be complete in every way and in every particular of lighting, colour scheme and hanging. The visitor must feel that they have been carefully considered. Bright said that a good exhibition should ‘shift’ you, in other words that it should take you out of the day-to-day and into something special. She recommended that we look at the work of Katrina Sluis and of the curator Isobel Parker-Philip. Overall, I found this a carefully prepared and very helpful event because it has given me some important curatorial points to follow if (or when) I offer my own gallery exhibition.

One Camera, One Lens and Natural Light – Danny Wilcox Frazier

This talk hosted by the VII Agency was about how to go a long way with very simple ingredients (Wilcox Frazier 2021). Wilcox Frazier’s study Driftless – of disadvantaged rural communities in Iowa – was shot on film with one camera, one lens and nothing else. The result is deeply moving (Wilcox Frazier 2007). The key point was that good projects come from being fully immersed in them. There are no short cuts. Your subjects need to trust you, too: they have to know who the photographer is. You must ‘share of yourself’ in Wilcox Frazier’s words. He emphasized that ‘a clear intent and a stronger voice need to be ever present in your work’. ‘A unique way of seeing’ and ‘a strong individual voice’ are what matter. It is easy to get carried away by technology and the wilder shores of conceptual art, but sometimes it is helpful to be reminded of the bedrock of good photography in a back-to-basics way. I am glad I attended this talk and its dark, powerful images redolent of a Magnum essay by Larry Towell or Matt Black.

Wilcox-Frazier-Driftless
Fig. 1: Danny Wilcox Frazier 2002. Brothers share a smoke at a gun range, Swisher, Iowa.

References

BRIGHT, Susan. 2021. ‘Curating Photography with Susan Bright’. Royal Photographic Society [online]. Available at: https://rps.org/SusanBright [accessed 19 Mar 2021].

THE PHOTOGRAPHERS’ GALLERY. 2019. ‘Feast for the Eyes – The Story of Food in Photography’. The Photographers’ Gallery [online]. Available at: https://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibition/feast-eyes-story-food-photography [accessed 19 Mar 2021].

WILCOX FRAZIER, Danny. 2007. ‘Driftless’. Danny Wilcox Frazier [online]. Available at: https://dannywilcoxfrazier.com/driftless-gallery [accessed 19 Mar 2021].

WILCOX FRAZIER, Danny. 2021. ‘One Camera, One Lens and Natural Light’. VII Agency [online]. Available at: https://viiphoto.com/recordings-resources/ [accessed 19 Mar 2021].

Figures

Figure 1. Danny WILCOX FRAZIER. 2002. ‘Brothers share a smoke at a gun range, Swisher, Iowa’. From: Danny Wilcox Frazier. 2002. Driftless. Available at: https://dannywilcoxfrazier.com/driftless-gallery [accessed 19 Mar 2021].

 

PHO705 Week 8: Online Exhibitions

While we are still in lockdown I have been experimenting with an online 3D exhibition using a system developed by Kunstmatrix in Germany (Kunstmatrix 2021). They call it ‘Augmented Reality’.

This is an experiment, so in order to become familiar with their system I have assembled some images from my previous main project Silent City, a walk through my hometown of Oxford after dark (Crean 2021). The virtual gallery space and setting it up works quite well but as always with these matters the key is publicity and getting people in through the virtual ‘door’. I will try various methods over the next few weeks and monitor the results. If they are favourable, then I will know that I have a potential outlet for my Final Major Project.

Below is an embedded version of the exhibition. Click on it to be taken to the full site. You can wander round using a mouse (or finger) or the arrow keys on your keyboard, but in practice I have found that taking the guided tour is likely the easiest way for a first visit.

The Kunstmatrix system looks to be in fairly early days. Plenty of other artists and organizations have mounted exhibitions on the platform but there are a few rough edges and the help files are brief. I would hope that the owners are encouraged by enough popularity to take their platform further. The pandemic has spurred much more interest in these possibilities while bricks-and-mortar spaces are off limits.

References

CREAN, Mark. 2021. ‘Silent City – 3D Virtual Exhibition’. KUNSTMATRIX [online]. Available at: https://artspaces.kunstmatrix.com/en/exhibition/5199174/silent-city [accessed 17 Mar 2021].

KUNSTMATRIX. 2021. ‘Organize and Present Your Art Online’. KUNSTMATRIX [online]. Available at: https://www.kunstmatrix.com/en [accessed 7 Mar 2021].

 

 

PHO705 Week 7: Keith Arnatt

Keith Arnatt’s practice was recommended to me by my supervisor and by John Duncan, one of my portfolio reviewers.

Arnatt began as a conceptual artist. Usually, conceptual art is of little appeal to me because often it seems too contrived and emotionally dead. This is not the case with Arnatt, however. In the best of his work he was too playful, too creative and too challenging for that. Besides, it is hard not to warm to someone who compared a discussion of photography versus art to discussing sausages versus food and who wrote what he called a ‘Trouser-Word Piece’ with some highly pertinent questions originally asked by the philosopher John Austin:

‘a definite sense attaches to the assertion that something is real, a real such-and-such, only in the light of a specific way in which it might be, or might have been, not real. ‘A real duck’ differs from the simple ‘a duck’ only in that it is used to exclude various ways of not being a real duck. … It is this identity of general function combined with immense diversity in specific applications which gives to the word ‘real’ the, at first sight, baffling feature of having neither one single ‘meaning’, nor yet ambiguity, a number of different meanings’ (Arnatt et al 2007: 148)

These are questions that lie at the heart of all photography: it is indexical but at the same time it is only a representation, it appears ‘real’ but it is in fact an illusion on a sheet of paper, it suggests that something happened but offers no evidence, outside the photograph, that anything happened at all. Something in us wants photographs to be real, but they never are.

Arnatt brought to his practice not only a keen intelligence but a deep knowledge of art and painting and a love of philosophy. The first lesson here is that the more one can bring to an image, of knowledge and life, the richer it is likely to be. Simply clicking a shutter is not really enough. As David Hurn writes: ‘He drew on his art background all the time, clearly referencing the work of Samuel Palmer for Miss Grace’s Lane (1986-87) … all his ideas about art and photography come together in these pictures, which are to me about looking – about the difference between knowing something and seeing something’ (Arnatt et al 2007: 10).

The second lesson here is easily forgotten but always present. In Arnatt’s own words: ‘the ability of the camera to transform that which is photographed seems to me to be an eternal source of fascination. The fact that it does this just this. Going back to Miss Grace’s Lane again … the way that these materials become transformed, both by the light by which they are photographed and by the photographic process itself, just fascinated me’ (Arnatt et al 2007: 136).

Three or four of Arnatt’s various bodies of work overlap with my own project.

The first is A.O.N.B. (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) of 1982-84. This raises the questions, just as important today, of what we really mean by concepts such as beauty, landscape, countryside. The landscapes Arnatt found in alleged beauty spots are far from the countryside of our fond imaginings. Often they are scrappy and unkempt, litter-haunted, and already showing signs of urban encroachment and metropolitan alienation. In the same era, the New Topographics movement and Arnatt’s contemporary Fay Godwin were questioning our ideas about landscape and beauty in similar ways. What we mean by ‘landscape’ and ‘landscape photography’ are questions core to my own project.

Keith Arnatt, A.O.N.B., 1982-85
Fig. 1: Keith Arnatt 1982-85. From his project A.O.N.B. (Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty).

In The Forest of Dean (1986) Arnatt took this further by showing ‘landscape’ as a working environment, although in rather soft, wash tones: our habitual tendency to see ’landscape’ as a pleasant vista blinds us to the reality of what actually happens there. Robert Adams has asked similar questions in much of his work albeit in a more pointed and even brutal way, as in his images of unsustainable clear-cut logging in the Pacific North West. This too overlaps with my project because any view of the landscape here involves showing unsustainable farming – agribusiness – and its consequences.

Arnatt’s interest in the camera’s ability to transform that which is photographed is best seen in two other bodies of work, Miss Grace’s Lane (1986-87) and Pictures from a Rubbish Tip (1988-89). These are lushly colourful works, and democratic in the vein of Eggleston or Shore: everything is available to our lens; it is our preconceptions about what ‘should’ make a photograph that get in the way. However, the colour in these works is there for a reason. Arnatt brought his knowledge of painting to every image, in composition, in the sometimes golden light of English Romanticism and in painterly textures and arrangements that recall, quite deliberately, classic still life paintings by Old Masters.

Keith Arnatt, Miss Grace's Lane, 1986-87
Fig. 2: Keith Arnatt 1986-87. Palmeresque lighting in an image from Miss Grace’s Lane.
Pictures from a Rubbish Tip 1988-9 by Keith Arnatt 1930-2008
Fig. 3: Keith Arnatt 1988-89. Mouldy bread from Pictures from a Rubbish Tip.

This is the third lesson: that good photographs have layers of meaning and derive their energy from the interplay of depiction and connotation. What may be shown is often only a starting point, even a metaphor. The photograph references a much wider, richer world across time that both changes the meaning of the image and expands our understanding and appreciation of it. We are not just looking at a mouldy loaf of bread (see Fig. 3) but at the whole history of how these objects have been approached in Western art. This is something I have barely tried in my photography but I am now sure it would be richer if I did. The subject was well summed up by David Bate:

‘The old famous complaint by Walter Benjamin, that photographers were “incapable of photographing a tenement rubbish heap without making it look beautiful” is precisely what Keith takes up, not to reject Benjamin’s remarks, but to show – to show the viewer – that what you see depends on how it is photographed, that photography organises what it sees. As Martin Parr notes in a piece on Keith Arnatt, those pictures are simultaneously appealing and disgusting. A piece of mouldy bread looks exquisite, like a Turner landscape. This is a perfect paradox’ (Bate 2009).

This returns me to Hurn’s point above about ‘the difference between knowing something and seeing something’. It is the difference between pointing the camera at something half-thinking ‘well, that looks quite interesting’ and immersing oneself in a frame, becoming aware of its possibilities, giving it one’s full attention, before pressing the shutter. Perhaps this is the really important quality to take from Arnatt’s practice as a photographer.

References

ARNATT, Keith., David HURN and Clare GRAFIK. 2007. I’m a Real Photographer. London: The Photographers’ Gallery.

BATE, David. 2009. ‘Keith Arnatt, 1930-2008’. Photoworks [online]. Available at: https://photoworks.org.uk/keith-arnatt-1930-2008/ [accessed 11 Mar 2021].

Figures

Figure 1. ARNATT, Keith. 1982-84. Untitled. From: Keith Arnatt. 1982-84. A.O.N.B. (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty). Available at: http://www.keitharnattestate.com/works/w51.html [accessed 12 March 2021].

Figure 2. ARNATT, Keith. 1986-87. Untitled. From: Keith Arnatt. 1986-87. Miss Grace’s Lane. Available at: http://www.keitharnattestate.com/works/w53.html [accessed 12 March 2021].

Figure 3. ARNATT, Keith. 1988-89. Untitled. From: Keith Arnatt. 1988-89. Pictures from a Rubbish Tip. Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/arnatt-pictures-from-a-rubbish-tip-t13171 [accessed 9 March 2021].

PHO705 Weeks 6-7: ADAPT’21

I went to several talks during the ADAPT’21 festival.

Julia Fullerton-Batten’s talk on her series of lockdown portraits in 2020, Looking Out From Within, was fascinating (Fullerton-Batten 2020). This style of performative photography is not really my thing but even so I admire it greatly. It is not only Fullerton-Batten’s formal and compositional expertise, and her allusions to classical paintings and portraiture, that I admire. It is also the complex process behind the scenes involving crews, lighting, props, make-up, logistics and much else.

This was a very valuable insight into the world of commercial photography (albeit repurposed during a pandemic). The actual taking of the image is the least of it in many ways. This was a lesson in the importance of careful planning, people management and, above all, collaboration. It was also a lesson in how to be bold. Do not hang back or fall prey to impostor syndrome but make your best effort to power ahead. In this respect, Fullerton-Batten emphasized that putting one’s work out there, in open calls and competitions, is very important (albeit with so many competitions available now she said that it pays to do one’s research and be selective).

Bruno Ceschel’s Keynote Address reminded me of the importance of keeping informed of contemporary practice particularly in the fields in which one is involved. In this regard, I have started to look at his series of presentations with photographers and critics, Contemporary Photography (Self Publish, Be Happy 2021), and catch up on its podcast equivalent, Gem Fletcher’s The Messy Truth (Fletcher 2021). Ceschel emphasized that photography books are changing: originality and ingenuity in both content and presentation far beyond the actual images themselves increasingly matters if a book is to succeed.

Ceschel pointed out that 2020 was hit by three successive waves: the pandemic, a social shift (social justice and racial equality movements) and a political shift (the struggle over authoritarian and xenophobic governance). He believes that the combination will change everything going forward. I hope he is right, but for my own practice the message is ‘stay open and adaptable and be prepared for changes’.

Thank you, Falmouth. I really appreciated ADAPT’21.

References

FLETCHER, Gemma. 2021. ‘‎The Messy Truth – Conversations on Photography’. Apple Podcasts [online]. Available at: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/the-messy-truth-conversations-on-photography/id1459128692 [accessed 12 Mar 2021].

FULLERTON-BATTEN, Julia. 2020. ‘Looking Out From Within 2020’. Julia Fullerton-Batten [online]. Available at: https://www.juliafullerton-batten.com/projectmenu.php?catNo=1&gallNo=96 [accessed 10 Mar 2021].

SELF PUBLISH, BE HAPPY. 2021. ‘Self Publish, Be Happy: Contemporary Photography’. Vimeo [online]. Available at: https://vimeo.com/spbh [accessed 14 Mar 2021].